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Friday, 11 May 2018

Inter-dental brushes, thirsty tomatoes, estate agents and lolly sticks - or, Things That Stop Me Writing

One of the many distractions at this time of year

I am a very productive writer. 26 books in the last twenty years, approximately. Plus half a dozen yet to find a publisher. And when I’m writing I make myself crank out 1,000 words a day, rain or shine. That, I tell people, is how books get written. Four months, 90,000 words.

On a non-fiction project such as I am working on now (a biography of a retired Member of Parliament), with my research done and lots of notes to draw on, I can do 2, 3, 4,000 a day. Yesterday I peaked: close to 5,000.

But I could do more - were it not for interruptions. Once I get my head down and start typing I hate them. (Single exception: lunch, which could come twice a day as far as I am concerned. Three times. Whatever you like.)

But this week? Let me count the ways.

Phone calls. One from a daughter whose car has broken down. One from another daughter who is looking for a flat in Liverpool. Love them both, but please – can it wait?  Phone call from a guy who wants to follow up on my new website, which his outfit subsidised last summer. Has it changed my business, my life, my social media interaction? I’ll have to think. Texts from mates about the weekend’s footie results (not good, so will you all please bugger off?)

Meanwhile I scribe away, shifting my attention from this set of interview notes to that one, shuffling the pile. There are four sets in front of me, plus a 24-page transcript of an epic recording session. Most of the guy’s stories are told in shreds and patches across every damned encounter. A lot of shuffling is involved. My desk is a sea of A4 sheets, scattered paper-clips and lost pens.

Phone call. I am coming by to talk about that website. This afternoon, if it’s okay. I can’t say no, can I? They did £1000 worth of work, all paid for by the European Community. Sure, see you about two.

Daughter no. 1 is back on: the car’s a write-off and I can’t afford…. Okay okay. Yes. Of course. Open online bank account. Wince. Start again.

Lunch! Yes. Enjoy that and settle back to work. Then I remember. Teeth. I’ve had a finger-wagging from my dentist. They never used to take this long: three minutes of electric droning, then the inter-dental brushes in two separate sizes….

Back to the keyboard, grimacing at the sting of peppermint which has eradicated the gorgeous flavour of my single daily cup of super-strength coffee. When is someone going to bring out a caffeinated dental cream? Or crème?

Pling! An email from my beloved: she is on a rowing boat with her brother. Reply, through gritted teeth: have fun. Don’t drown or anything.

The milkman is at the door, and he wants paying. Would like to chat. Yes, we still have milk delivered in the northeast. By chatty delivery men. Shelve out £45 and go back to my study. Now, where was I? Ah yes, the corridors of power – and a juicy bit of gossip about Mrs Thatcher. 

Phone call. It’s the estate agent, trying to sell us a three-bedroomed house on the edge of town when we already established that we wanted four beds close to the centre. Somehow contrive to be polite, despite feeling like ripping his head off.

As the sun comes out and starts blazing through window, I close the blind, then drop everything and rush outside. At the allotment I open the greenhouse windows and water my wilting, gasping, grateful tomatoes. And stop a while to earth up the spuds (see photo, above).

Back to desk and count the day’s words. Wonder how in God’s name I got to 1,216 already.

Shuffle papers on desk, bang out another 137 words (yes, some days I really do check the total every half hour; doesn't everyone?).

While musing on a way to open the next paragraph I spot under the screen a white NHS envelope. Oh bugger! The biennial bowel cancer screening tests, which have been sitting there for three weeks.

Repair to the toilet, armed with lolly sticks and a waterproof envelope. (You’ve been there? You’re clearly older than you look. You’re bemused? Wait till you pass sixty: that’s when the fun really starts.) 

The door bell. Oh shit: the guy about the website. Spend 45 minutes convincing him that the money was well spent.

Back to it. Somehow, I bang out the words. From somewhere I find the energy to write a blog post. Somehow, when I do the word count tonight, I will have reached my daily target. I always do. Somehow.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

At the Alderney Literary Festival

Not Alderney (which is indeed very small), but an islet off the coast, home to a zillion gannets.

I had never been to the Channel Islands, let alone Alderney (pop. 1900). So it was a thrill to be invited to the Literary Festival, which ran Friday 23rd to Sunday 25th March.

I was there to talk about my novel, Cody, The Medicine Man and Me, and the way in which I used  events from my personal and other histories to piece together a narrative.

Boy, did they look after us. From the moment I arrived it was one reception after another, with fine dining nightly - alternating between restaurants and our (very generous) sponsors' homes. (For homes, on this fortress island, read 'fort' in many cases.)

As well as the many visible relics of the German occupation which are scattered around the island, there are extensive networks of underground workings, still being explored to this day. In addition, there are a number of older fortifications built by the British and dating back to the mid- to early nineteenth century. The enemy then was France.

The harbour at Braye is a gentle 15-minute walk from the centre of 'La Ville', as the island's only town is known - and a 20-minute trudge back up the hill. It is protected by this monster of a jetty, built in the 1850s at a cost of over £1,000,000. Its original length was almost 1.5 kilometres, but heavy seas rapidly reduced that to around 900 metres.

I was doubly lucky when I took a stroll on Monday morning, barely an hour before my flight departed: one, the sun was shining for the first time since Friday; and two, they had removed the barricade which stops pedestrians venturing onto it when, as it was all weekend, the wind was blowing huge waves over the top.

Apart from the several literary events I attended, I managed a novel footballing pilgrimage. It happened that the annual semi-final of the Muratti Cup was being played, between the local minnows, Alderney FC, and Guernsey, who play in the English Level 8, the Isthmian League. Their chairman is none other than Matt Le Tissier.

So, on Saturday, I walked the couple of miles to their ground (The Arsenal), paid my £3 and joined 400-odd spectators for a tightly fought game which ended 2-0 to the visitors. Half froze to death,  but enjoyed notching up my 49th U.K. football ground

Alderney (in blue) mount an  attack in the first half.
As well as a short bike ride, when the rain let up, I took a two-hour bus tour and tried to explore 'La Ville' on foot. Hard to imagine, but I got lost a number of times. 

Street scene in 'La Ville'

If you've never been to the Islands, or imagine that such tiny dots on the map wouldn't entertain you past the first day, think again. I managed to explore just a small portion of Alderney (it's little more than 3 miles by 1.5) and soon realised that I could comfortably keep myself busy for a week or two. (I believe there are 12 pubs, for a start.)

So now it's back to work - or rather, my Speed Awareness course, in Hartlepool, later in the week

Sunday, 18 March 2018

What Better Place to Write About Nature? A Month's Retreat in the Scottish Highlands.

The view from our garden, of Ben Resipol.

The plan was to spend four weeks in the middle of nowhere. My partner, Alyson, wanted to paint; I planned to start a new book, about my many attempts, over a lifetime, to find and embrace natural surroundings. We could not have found a better place for the task than this little hideaway in the Scottish Highlands.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. It was a remote spot, six miles down the shore of the loch, along a rough track pitted with deep holes, most of them full of water which hid submerged rocks. But we seemed to be off to a good start. The weather was kind for mid-February, and the scenery spectacular.

The house was tucked away at the end of a muddy track, well sheltered from the north winds

It was after we’d located the key that the excitement started. The place had mostly been empty since the autumn. Empty of humans, that is. So the mice – cute little brown field mice who wouldn’t hurt a soul – had moved in. As far as we could see, they had then spent the winter months chewing. They’d chewed the plastic box that contained the candles. They’d chewed the candles. They’d chewed the foam rubber seating of the settee. They’d chewed the kitchen sponges. And, of course, they had left their droppings on every surface.

We rolled up our sleeves, lit a fire and cleaned up. I put on my ex-rat-catcher face and declared war. It was a long-drawn-out affair, lasting all but a few days of the four weeks we were there, but, although I burned the bodies and have no evidence, I am claiming victory. Those last few days we neither saw nor heard them once.

The mice were a passing irritant compared to what followed. The gas lights didn’t work – or rather, some did, but had a disturbing habit of triggering the carbon monoxide alarm. We decided to stick with candles. Romantic, cosy, but you can’t read without a lot of squinting – and the light was still fading around six most days. So we played Scrabble, nightly.
The solar power didn’t work, so neither could I. I can write a journal long-hand, which I did, but cannot compose that way. I've just been using a pc for way too long. We’d been there nine days before we located the source of the problem – defunct storage batteries – and managed to replace them. Then, at last, I could fire up my laptop and write. Which you can bet I did. 26,000 words - good words, if you want my opinion - in 16 days.

We managed too to get out hiking every day, and that was a great joy. Around us were mountains, woods, burns and lochs. The walking was never easy, but rarely impossible. The vegetation was mostly grass, which grew in tussocks, along with bracken, reeds and mosses – which meant that, although the ground was very wet at times, there was almost always somewhere to take your next step that wasn’t a foot deep in water.
This lovely stretch of water was less than half an hour's walk away, but note the coarse vegetation

As the days went by our early fair weather gave way to bitter cold. Our water supply, which came direct from a mountain stream, froze solid. We carried buckets up to the nearest pool to collect what we needed for washing, further up to fill bottles for drinking. After two or three such days the sound of gurgling in the sink was an unbelievable thrill.

For our first few days the house was icy cold. It had been empty for months. I regularly slept in a full set of long merino wool underwear, occasionally with a hat on – and that was under two duvets. One night I got into a sleeping-bag too. But slowly, with the fire on all day every day, the stone walls warmed up. That was the first great comfort of the place, the cast-iron stove. Regularly stoked with coal, it heated gallons of scalding water and gave us our second great pleasure, a nightly hot bath.

Gradually we settled to our respective rhythms - Alyson painting while I wrote. Suddenly the days were flying by. We were equally productive, equally frustrated when our time came to an end. We will return. Of that we are sure. Looking out on scenes like this on a daily basis is addictive.

A peaceful evening view across Loch Shiel to Ben Resipol


Thursday, 15 February 2018

A Creative Retreat - and a Peculiar Dream

I seems to spend less and less time on my blog these days. It's not that there's nothing happening, rather that there's too much.  The book on Eric Knight (provisionally entitles The Lassie Legend - with a suitably explanatory subtitle) comes out in April, and continues to take a lot of my time.

I am also now working on an other biographical project, this time with the family of a retired Member of Parliament. It's gathering pace and gathering substance, occupying a considerable portion of my thoughts.

Then tomorrow morning we take off to the Scottish Highlands for our month-long creative retreat. I am hoping for decent enough weather to allow a little hiking: we need to be in shape for our (unsupported) trans-Corsica hike next September. Apart from that, I expect to do a lot of writing.

The subject was going to be a big one: Nature. However, last  night I had an extraordinary dream in which I seemed to be walking with a man whose war letters I edited 20 years ago (and he wrote a hundred years ago). He had the great good fortune to cheat death, one way or another, on no fewer than 13 occasions - like the day he stepped out onto the parapet and saw his C.O., standing beside him, blown to bits while he remained unscathed.  In the dream he had just stepped off a biplane, having hitched a ride back to England with an RAF chum.

As we walked, I remarked on the fact that he had survived against all odds, but as he headed home, it struck me forcibly that the War was just as likely to do for him now as while it was in progress: he had the unenviable task of surviving the peace, knowing that all his comrades had been  killed. I was filed with a sense that this was his tragedy, to survive alone. He seemed, not so much to be telling me as assuming that I was about to, write his story. How does one account for a dream like that?

Well, I shall ponder it when we get to our cottage - after we've lit the fire and made sure the lamps are topped up with oil.

If the weather's this good I won't complain


Friday, 12 January 2018

Remembering Carolyn Cassady

Carolyn in her kitchen, around 2009

I've just put out, as an e-publication, an article I wrote in 2014 for Beat Scene (a magazine published three or four times a year in the UK.)

It's a reflective piece about my ten-year friendship with Carolyn Cassady, widow of Neal (Dean Moriarty in On The Road) and former lover of Jack Kerouac.

It reveals how I met her, how we became friends, and delves into the lengthy correspondence we shared during her final years.

There are some surprising insights into her own life, also a few snapshot scene from some of my visits with her in her home.  

It's called simply, Carolyn Cassady and Me, runs to about 10,000 words, and is available for Kindle at 99p (£1.34 in the USA). Try it -